I’ve gotten some interesting questions and comments from people who have read the novel. I’m posting some of the most-asked. If you have any questions yourself, you can send them to writersteveburke at gmail dot com. Thanks.
How close are your characters [of Francis Mahoney and Jimmy Mahoney] to Whitey Bulger and Billy Bulger?
This is the question asked most often. The two Bulger brothers are very strong inspirations for my characters Francis and Jimmy. For The Chieftains of South Boston, the characters have some obvious differences, such as age. However, you’ll see a lot of similarities. The novel takes place in about a week, and I set up events to use as much as history has to offer. Including the history of both Bulger brothers.
Whenever I found myself searching for story threads to tie the narrative together, all I had to do was dig into the research a little deeper and I’d find more than what I needed.
Some of the research is obvious in early chapters. More becomes more evident as the story unfolds in the second half of the book.
Did you name Francis Mahoney after the Jack Nicholson character in the movie The Departed?
I started work on the novel back in the 90s, and one of the first things I did was choose names for my characters. Giving them names is one of the first steps you take to let you live inside them.
So no, I chose the name before seeing the movie. I saw The Departed and definitely enjoyed it. And I think I’ve liked every movie Jack Nicholson’s been in. His portrayal of a South Boston gangster was interesting but not quite true to the life of Whitey Bulger. Too much Hollywood, not enough Triple Os (one of Whitey’s hangouts back in the day).
The story feels disjointed.
Aside from questions, I gotten a couple of comments like this one. In order to capture the whole story of South Boston, I knew the novel would have to include not just one character with one point of view, but three characters who had very different experiences. Because they’re also brothers, they share common relationship to mother, father and what it means to grow up as a Mahoney in South Boston.
I would have enjoyed writing a story that focused only on Jimmy Mahoney, the politician. Yet that would leave out a lot. A story about an Irish mobster would be less interesting, especially with all the stories out right now about Whitey Bulger.
Because Jimmy and Francis tend to be larger than life in many scenes, it’s the character of Matthew that grounds the story in common terms that people can relate to more directly.
Weaving the three distinct narratives together often involves breaking voice, focus, point of view, etc. Moving from one character’s scene to another’s causes a shift that can feel jarring and can give the story a disjointed feel to some readers. I knew the downside as I decided on a structure for the story (call it literary montage) but decided that it was the price to pay for painting a larger portrait of place.
There are too many characters.
Well, there are a LOT of character in The Chieftains. Believe it or not, I eliminated some in the final edit of the book. However, I believe that it’s the people of South Boston who contain the identity of the place—their experiences, their personal history, how they speak, what they believe.
It was important to pull as many of those voices and characters into the story as I could if I wanted a rich and accurate representation of place. I believe the final character count is around 75, most of them being minor characters. Is that a lot? Sure. Is it too many? I don’t think so.
For a 400-page book, why wasn’t there more character development.
To readers who had similar questions, I’m only half kidding when I say that I feel your storytelling pain. I wanted not only to put my characters through a grueling ordeal, but I also wanted to bring them out on the other side as changed people who could reflect on the experiences they’d gone through. There was one problem: the clock. The whole novel takes place in roughly a week. People don’t typically gain profound wisdom immediately after the sort of ordeal than Anne and Matthew experienced. There was no room in my narrative for the kind of character development that takes place in novels that span months or years. Every time I tried to write it that way (and believe me, I tired several times), the lines just looked back at me and laughed.
The good news is that there’s lots of character development in the sequel I’m currently writing because it takes place over the course of 18 months or so (I’m still deciding the exact time). The story is set in Seattle and Alaska from 1999-2001 with Matthew, Anne and their two kids (Dylan and Nora) as central characters. Returning characters include Kathleen and Joan, to name only two.
Why is the opening line of your book so abrupt? Is the intent to shock?
Not so much to shock, as to get you immediately into the head of Matthew Mahoney. Each Mahoney brother is given their own focus in the first 3 chapters. Chapter 1 is Matthew’s.
What complicated the task of focusing on Matthew is that the book starts at a wedding. So many people to introduce so quickly. Not sure if I’d do that again if I were to rewrite the story from scratch. Having said that, once I identified it as a challenge I hesitated to walk away from it.
The first attempts at the opening were externally framed, describing the reception, the crowd, the weather, etc, before getting to Matthew. In the end, I decided to begin with an internal frame (inside Matthew’s head) and let the reader first see things as he sees them.
The opening line lets you hear directly from Matthew, and it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the way he thinks.
Why did you set the story in 1987 instead of during busing or now?
The seventies, when busing began, would be an interesting time to set a story in South Boston, but I was more interested in exploring how it could effect someone’s life for years after the fact. And also what direction South Boston would take as a result. So I wanted to have a certain amount of time pass after the time of busing had occurred, both for the character of Matthew and for South Boston.
In the eighties, South Boston was in transition. Mayor Flynn was changing a lot of things on the political front. Billy Bulger was still in power at the state house. And Whitey Bulger was still on top of his game. The eighties was also when the FBI was inflicting some serious damage to the Italian Mafia in Boston.
Just as South Boston was in transition from its older identity to a somewhat different one, so was the character of Matthew Mahoney. There are many things he had yet to resolve about his past, and in the book he’s brought face to face with them all.
The exact year of 1987 is based on politics. I’d say more here, but I don’t want to spoil some interesting scenes in later chapters.
If the questions above don’t one you have, please feel free to email me at writersteveburke at gmail dot com. Thanks.